Engaging Sermons: Bringing the Bible to Life
How a preaching peer group helped an imaginative preacher reach new heights in her quest to create engaging sermons.
In this Strengthening Preaching blog series, preachers from a range of Christian traditions and denominations reflect on their growth as preachers through their involvement in the Strengthening Preaching initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc., which is coordinated by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. At the heart of the initiative are preaching peer groups, sponsored by various seminaries, which engage preachers in reading, discussion, preaching, and feedback—all within a collegial circle of support.
As a pastor, I constantly seek to build my preaching skills so I can stimulate my congregation’s excitement about the transformative, inspirational Word of God. Being part of a preaching peer group has helped me to expand my preaching repertoire and techniques.
Our preaching peer group has eleven pastors from various congregational settings, multiple levels of preaching experience, and diverse cultural backgrounds. Therefore, we are privileged to encounter a wide range of preaching methodologies when we meet.
Because we are in the pulpit almost every Sunday, pastors rarely hear other preachers, so it’s refreshing to listen to my peers deliver engaging sermons. I also value receiving peer group feedback and hearing suggestions for strengthening my own sermons.
I serve a small African-American church with about 100 members. Hearing the struggles, challenges, and celebrations of my peers—especially experiences that cross various cultural boundaries—creates a common bond for the group. However, several times I have found myself telling my peers that there’s a different paradigm in an African-American church; The culture, expectations, and demands are different.
My congregation calls me “the teacher/preacher.” I realize we are living in a society that is basically biblically illiterate. If I can give them one concept, theme, morsel, or seed that will make them think about the message on their way home, then I am pleased. I am truly delighted when people in my congregation say they discuss my sermons over Sunday dinner using the sermon outline provided in the bulletin.
I believe that the Bible is the living Word of God. It becomes the living Word to the congregation when we bring the people in the Bible to life. We need to unpack their stories and retell them using all the creativity we can—imagery, props, music, creative thinking, critical thinking, and more—as led by the Holy Spirit.
In my church, sermons must be engaging because the preached Word is considered the highlight of our worship service. The pressure is on to deliver a powerful, dynamic, engaging, thought-provoking thirty-minute sermon.
That pressure was magnified when I first preached for my peer group, knowing that they would be evaluating and critiquing the message from various perspectives.
I was quite terrified. I edited the sermon to about twenty minutes to keep it flowing while I exegeted Acts 4:23–32 in a storytelling format. The sermon—entitled “The Church Was Praying!”—was from a series called The Power of a Praying Church. My peers’ feedback was quite positive, and they encouraged me to push the envelope even more. Many said they had never heard narrative, didactic preaching that was so engaging.
Preaching in the digital age
We live in a culture that is visual, digital, dynamic, and engaging. As preachers, we attempt to capture and maintain our listeners’ attention for twenty to thirty minutes, but millennials have only eight-minute attention spans. I seek to involve several of the senses to keep them engaged. Standing before my congregation and reading a manuscript does not hold people’s attention. Therefore, I preach without notes, using PowerPoint to present visuals and key points.
The peer feedback from my first sermon pushed to me to be even more creative in my sermon preparation. As a result, I began the New Year with a sermon series based on Marvin Gaye’s prophetic album What’s Going On. I pointed out how little has changed between 1971, when the album was released, and 2018. I used song titles from the album as my sermon titles, while contrasting events from now and then. It was a great way to begin the new year.
The peer-group readings have prompted me to ask even more questions as I prepare sermons:
- How do I bring this biblical character to life? How do I capture people’s attention and keep them engaged?
- What visuals or props should I use to create vivid imagery?
- How can I “re-present” or repackage this Scripture passage to make people think about what it says?
- How do I paraphrase “Jesus talk” or unpack the Scriptures to present simple language for all ages?
- What rhetorical questions will challenge people to use both creative and critical thinking during the message?
Twelve years ago I attended the United Methodist clergywomen’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration in Chicago. An elderly Anglo woman was sitting on my right during a worship service, and we engaged in conversation. Suddenly she took my hand and said, “Look into my eyes!” I immediately did.
Then she said, “There are many women in the Bible who have powerful stories to tell. God wants you to give them a voice.”
“OK,” I whispered.
That event was the genesis of my doing sermon dramatizations that gave biblical women a voice. I dress in costume and tell their story in the first person. These monologues have been very successful in engaging the entire congregation. My millennials sit on the edge of their seats, hanging on every word. My youth go and recite the stories to their friends. Seniors gain insight into the struggles these women faced in a patriarchal society.
This year, on Mother’s Day, I did a sermon dramatization about the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4). I called it “A Mother’s Fight for Life.” I selected this sermon for my second peer-group message, dressing in costume, using props, and doing about ninety percent of the reenactment. My peers gave extremely positive feedback, saying that I embodied the mother. They found it to be powerful.
The peer group experience has changed my preaching in valuable ways. Because of my peers’ comments and encouragement, I continue to push myself to engage my listeners by:
- using more figurative language,
- constantly striving to find creative ways to preach the gospel, and
- remembering that my congregation loves stories and is drawn in by rhetorical questions that encourage critical thinking.
Read So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive, an examination of the impact of pastor peer groups.
Explore preaching resources from the Center for Excellence in Preaching.